Jim Gibbons presented information on the December 1, 1958 Our Lady of the Angels School Fire at the Marengo-Union Library on February 25, 2012.

Gibbons, a historian and Marengo resident, said the fire killed 92 children and three nuns. It was the third largest fire in Chicago history and the third largest school fire in the nation. Children died of smoke inhalation, were burned to death, were killed from jumping out the 25 foot high windows, and died from other related injuries.

“I read a book called, To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of A Fire,” Gibbons said. “I was so moved by the book that I found there are about 25 of the children buried in Queen of Heaven cemetery in Hillside, IL. My parents are buried there, so I went to the memorial to pay my respects. At that point, it was the 50th year of the fire. After researching the topic, I was in contact with some of the survivors.”

During his presentation, Gibbons discussed the life and death of Margaret (“Peggy”) Anne Sansonetti, who was killed by smoke inhalation in the fire at age 10. Kathy Sansonetti, the sister of Peggy, and a survivor of the fire, attended the event and said it was a very accurate presentation.

“When I got out of the fire, they told us to go in the church and calm down,” Kathy said. “Then, the smoke started coming into the church. So they told us to go home. I went right home and I was all black from the soot. My mother said, ‘Where’s Peggy?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know. I think she already got out.’ I didn’t know the fire was worse on her side of the building and that people were dying there.”

Kathy said the fire was the end of the once close-knit neighborhood she remembered. “Everybody who lived around there moved out,” she said. “My mother was one of the last people to stay. We never had a Christmas after that. I think we always had a terrible gloom over us. Peggy and I used to sleep in the same twin bed together. We’d laugh about a lot of stuff together and fight about a lot of goofy stuff. Then all of a sudden, everything was stopped.”

Kathy, who now lives in Aurora, said her sister was very smart, witty, and loving. She said she is very glad people are talking about and praying for Peggy again.

“I’m thrilled people would be willing to learn about her and honor her after 53 years—the little girl they never knew,” she said.

Marengo residents, Rosemary DiGiovanni and Barbara Komosa attended the event and said it brought back many sad memories of the time. Both knew survivors from the fire.

“I have a friend, who’s now deceased, who was at the school,” DiGiovanni said. “She came home that day for lunch and decided she wasn’t going to go back to school [since] she was ill. She was not there the afternoon of the fire, by the grace of God.”

Robert Halvey, a Woodstock resident, and Mark Halvey, from Wisconsin, attended the presentation and said they went to a nearby school during the time. Mark said he remembered special collections being taken up afterwards.

Art Wisz, a Marengo resident, said he remembers coming home from school and information on the fire was all over the news.

“All of a sudden, the phones were ringing like crazy in our house and my mom’s going, ‘No, no, it’s not him,’ Wisz said. “Later, we found out, [a boy who had the] same name as my brother, [was killed].” Susan Parker, from the Marengo-Union Library, said Gibbons’ presentation was riveting.

“He gave you the idea that you were a witness, that you were there,” Parker said. “You got the feeling of urgency that everyone at the scene must have felt.”

April 14, 2012 will be the official re-opening of the Our Lady of the Angels Church. Today, the neighborhood is the “poorest of the poor,” Gibbons said. He is hopeful that people will start to contribute through donations and volunteering to the new church to help those in need in the area.


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